It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry

North By Northwest

As Bob Dylan once wrote: “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.” Having spent a good chunk of the day reading and writing about the West Coast rail franchise furore, what is clear is how much people care about trains.

Not trainspotter eccentrics either. Normal, rational people who aren’t given to displays of affection for inanimate vehicles. It is in part because trains are the most beautiful way to travel. All the romance and adventure of travel is caught up in the carriages careening away through unaccustomed fields.

I can’t drive and have no real inclination to learn; owning a car is extraneous when you live in London. Planes are a stressful means to an end. Walking’s wonderful but you don’t get far very quickly. Trains are an everyday occurrence that injects some spirit of enterprise into the mundane. Time for the mind to wander, time for space to work, time for frivolous flourishes of thought (and sillier luxuries of buffet). Trains are beloved for reminiscence and for planning.

Listen to the volume of breathtaking songs devoted to locomotives. Dylan, The Clash, Arctic Monkeys, Elvis, Bright Eyes, Johnny Cash, Guillemots and – yes – Ocean Colour Scene have all hit high points extolling the trials and tribulations of trains. Of course they make for a good metaphor, but there is real affection in music for what the whistling lumps of metal represent.

The rhythm of trains flows through a multitude of stories, from Harry Potter appearing fully formed in JK Rowling’s train-bound brain to the boxcar tales of Woody Guthrie to the travelling mishaps of every guy to ever pull up a pew and share a story in a pub. Advertisers, film-makers, raconteurs all know the sentiment invested in heading out of a station and onto a journey.

I can recall more about some memorable train journeys than the destinations they carried me to. Riding into London in a charity shop suit eager to ace my first interview. Feeling excited and awkward in First Class for the first time on the way up to Liverpool. Glueing my face to the window to see the Spanish landscape flicker past on the way to a festival. Crawling up in the wrong seat hungover on the way back. Playing cards and sipping six-packs in Sussex with new best friends. Saying goodbye for good to old girlfriends.

So yes, people care about trains because they get them from A to B. But it’s what they see on the way that makes trains more than just transportation.

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